Is the Solidarity of Sisterhood a Myth?

There's a good reason Moira Donegan created a private space like the Shitty Media Men list. So why would another woman seek to violate that trust?

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Today’s cultural conversation around gender and power, turbocharged ever since allegations of sexual assault and harassment took down Harvey Weinstein, has been a long time coming. The #MeToo movement, pioneered by Tarana Burke, grew into a juggernaut on social media, a communal reckoning that both demanded men be held accountable for their actions, and invited women to share their stories of being sexually harassed and assaulted. For women in journalism, the Shitty Media Men list, created and shared anonymously, was a place to name names, to out the senior editor known for drunkenly groping new hires, to warn about the staff writer who liked to follow women home from parties and press himself against them.

Women sought, and many received, catharsis and satisfaction from sharing their own stories and hearing others. Like any radical cure, talking about sexism in this way was painful but ultimately empowering. We learned that secrets shared, often for the first time, forge solidarity. As women in the 1970s said, sisterhood is powerful. But if you’ve ever watched Mean Girls, read Little Women, or attended a sixth-grade sleepover, you also know that sisters can turn on one another, and that solidarity can be elusive, even treacherous.

When news broke this week that Harper’s magazine was preparing to publish an article (reportedly a cover story)  that would identify the woman who created the Shitty Media Men list, women reacted with outrage. Warning that doxxing the list’s creator would cause her long-term harassment, threats, and possible physical or economic harm, writer Nicole Cliffe announced on Twitter that she would pay writers with articles slated for Harper’s to pull them from the magazine in protest, and DAME publisher Jennifer Reitman offered pay and a place to publish—a real moment of feminist solidarity that was quickly overtaken by the news that the piece’s author was also a woman, Katie Roiphe. Best known for her book The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism on Campus, which painted anti-rape activism as overwrought political correctness and claimed that “the line between fact and fiction is a delicate one when it comes to survivor stories.” Book, magazine, and especially New York Times editors ate it up (for more on what she called “the selling of Katie Roiphe,” read Jennifer Gonnerman’s excellent Baffler article of the same name).

This morning, New York’s The Cut ran a brilliant essay by Moira Donegan in which she outed herself as the creator of the Shitty Media Men list. The risks in voluntarily renouncing her anonymity were less, she wisely figured, than what she might face if the Roiphe article did it for her. Or to her.

Like most media stories these days, the whole thing has moved at the speed of light. Twitter, for those of us who follow a lot of women in journalism, was blindingly hot. Writers like Heidi Moore tweeted threads about why Donegan’s list was so important, and why outing her would do serious harm. And they called into question Roiphe’s own motives.

“I hope what’s happened to Roiphe’s story serves as a good example to women who think they can make money by selling out other women,” Moore wrote. “If you are willing to destroy another woman’s career because a dude thinks it’s a good idea and will pay you to do it, dragging will occur.” Lyz Lenz wrote a blistering takedown on The Rumpus, titled “Come for Me, Katie Roiphe.”

It all took me back a couple of years, to when a group of women founded Binders, a community of women writers on Facebook (named for then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s bizarre promise during a debate that he had “binders full of women” to hire). Despite the group’s secret identity on Facebook, and rules against posting anything about it, much less from it, Emily Greenhouse joined Binders, then wrote breezily about it for Vogue. She even praised it as “a seed of solidarity,” which is strange coming from the same person who has breached the group’s terms.

There’s a scene in the movie Quiz Show in which Dick Goodwin’s wife berates him for favoring Mark Van Doren, a cheating WASP, over the Jewish Herb Stempel, and calls him “the Uncle Tom of the Jews.” I’ve been thinking about that line a lot lately, because it’s hard not to see Roiphe and Greenhouse in similar terms. What does it say about solidarity among members of an often-marginalized group when one of its own betrays it?

Solidarity among women has always been fraught, of course, as Mikki Kendall amply detailed in her Twitter hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen. We are divided by race and class, by politics and generation, by marital and maternal status. White women, a subgroup of which I am a part, have been notoriously missing in action when women of color have sought our solidarity. Too often, we have co-opted rather than cooperated, lectured rather than listened. Then, too, in a world still dominated by male power, there’s always the allure of being the cool girl who sells out the other girls to curry favor with the guys.

Part of the problem with the Harper’s and Vogue articles lies in a diffuse media landscape in which more and more writers compete for a shrinking pot of money and attention. For a woman journalist, knowing you can get a story your male colleague can’t—whether it’s about the Shitty Media Men list or the Binders Facebook group—might seem like an irresistible temptation. There’s a push-pull between the demands of loyalty to the sisterhood and the need to hustle after every possible clickbait article.

Some women—and more than a few men—took to social media to defend the Harper’s article. Why not name the list’s creator, they asked, since the list itself named names? Aren’t complaints about doxxing overblown? “We find it disturbing that voices from the bog are criticizing and issuing threats over a piece that they have not yet read and is not even finalized,” a representative from Harper’s told the media magazine The Folio. “We look forward to talking about what is and is not in the piece when it is published.”

These criticisms are easily dismissed. Not every legitimate story about a whistleblower requires exposing the individual. The list itself was created anonymously to protect those who could not afford to go public with their accusations, but who had hoped to protect others from the same dangers they’d encountered. And it bears noting that the danger of doxxing, which is abundantly clear to digital natives, is often downplayed or downright ignored by an older generation.

Still, the entire story circles back, for me, to the idea of sisterhood. What do women owe each other? Is solidarity a false promise? Are we held back by loyalty to an ideal that is more like a trap,  or is sisterhood the only safe harbor in a dangerous world?

Here’s all I know: Back in those sixth-grade sleepovers, when a few other girls broke my heart by talking about the various defects in how I looked (flat chest, big forehead, glasses), my other friends had my back. They had defects, too, and besides, we all shared the same basic liability: We were girls in a world in which women weren’t treated fairly. I didn’t need to read research on sexism to see it play out all around me (but I also read the research).

Being a woman in today’s world is better in some ways than it was in the 1970s, but most of the battles we still fight are dismally familiar. I don’t believe in an essentialist view of the differences between men and women, but I do think most of us who grew up female are socialized to make connections, to value the group as much as the individual. And that, I think, is what we can use now as our strength. It’s all too easy to take down another woman—it makes your male editor happy, it satisfied the current appetite for contrarian takes, it offers a bracing sense of independence and neutrality. But it’s a sham.

Let’s not fight each other. Let’s fight for each other. The only way to beat the old boys’ network is to form our own network, one that links all kinds of women. One of the most powerful lessons I’ve taken from this entire drama has been that women are extraordinary when we help each other, and that the whip-smart tweeting, reportage, and editorial writing by women angered by Roiphe’s actions has been a thing of beauty. A solidarity of inclusion, a sisterhood that is truly powerful, is still our best weapon to take down all the shitty men the world puts in our way.

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